USC Women's Basketball

After ‘nightmare’ injury, Alaina Coates sees flashes of old self in rookie year

Alaina Coates talks about her ankle, the WNBA and playing abroad

South Carolina Gamecock great Alaina Coates discusses the ankle injury that delayed her professional debut and her plans for graduation and her first WNBA season.
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South Carolina Gamecock great Alaina Coates discusses the ankle injury that delayed her professional debut and her plans for graduation and her first WNBA season.

Physically, the injury that kept Alaina Coates from making her professional debut for months wasn’t catastrophic — she knew she would play again.

But mentally, the ankle injury that kept Coates out of South Carolina women’s basketball’s 2017 national championship run was difficult, to say the least.

“I was really just keeping in the back of my mind that this injury is not career-ending, it’s not going to hold me back forever, so in order to maintain a positive mindset, I definitely wanted to make sure that I stayed positive,” Coates told The State in an interview. “Because it did, kind of emotionally, take me out, in a sense. I suffered pretty much any senior’s nightmare, which is getting hurt and not being able to finish the season. Thankfully our team was able to finish out the season and get the national championship, but that does take a hit on your emotional, your mental (state).”

Coates went No. 2 overall to the Chicago Sky in the 2017 WNBA draft, but her first professional game did not come until February 2018 in Hungary, as she needed months to rehab and slowly return to form.

Once she did make her WNBA debut this May, Coates got off to a slow start — in her first 14 games, she averaged 2.14 points, 2.14 rebounds. 0.21 blocks and 0.21 assists while playing 8.21 minutes per game.

Her time overseas had helped knock some rust off, she said, but the style of play was different enough that she still needed to adjust.

In the latter half of the season, however, Coates began to show signs of improvement, scoring 10 points twice and pulling down 10 rebounds in two other games. In the final 18 games of the year, she averaged 4.39 points, 4 rebounds, 0.22 blocks and 0.56 assists in 13.7 minutes per game.

Her field goal rate also increased from 52.6 to 58.2 percent.

“I felt myself become more and more confident the more I was out on the court and the more that I was posting up,” Coates said. “The more I felt comfortable in my skin came with more (playing time). I could see the little glimpses of me coming back, especially with the games that I had really really high numbers in rebounding and just in different areas. This year was like my icebreaker, my stepping stone. So I really can only see myself going up from here.”

Now, she’s back in the Midlands, where she grew up and went to high school and college. On Sept. 8, she’ll host her first ever basketball camp at Friarsgate Park in Irmo from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. It’s the place she grew up playing pickup basketball.

“I just know that a lot of people who have supported me, who have been with me through this basketball journey of mine, are from this area and I really wanted just to bring it back to the community. I know that one day I will be able to do something for the people of the city of Chicago, but I definitely wanted my first to be back at home and at the gym that started it all,” Coates said.

Her message to the campers, she said, will be to work hard no matter what level of success they achieve, a lesson that was reinforced to her in WNBA training camp, when she saw a number of veterans get cut, the product of an intensely competitive league where there simply aren’t enough roster spots to go around.

“Everybody’s replaceable,” Coates said. “Just be the best you that you can be and really focus on things that make you different from other players, because that helps make you stand out.”

After that September camp, Coates will be off to play overseas again, this time in China — just like another famous former Gamecock forward, A’ja Wilson. Coates, who will play for the Zhejiang Golden Bulls, said she is not sure when she will face off against Wilson, but that there is a “big possibility we could run into each other.”